Person First Language and Identity First Language

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Person First Language and Identity First Language

What They Mean and Why It Matters

By Molly Carter

In today’s world of constant information coming from our electronic rectangles, one aspect that gets muddled, even sometimes lost, is the nuance and complexity of rhetoric.  

This is especially important when addressing marginalization through the use of language.  

It both makes complete sense and is insulting to me that we still hear non-disabled people use phrases such as “handicapped parking,” “ mentally challenged,” or, God forbid, “special needs child.”  

It makes complete sense, because language is the fundamental tool we first learn to use to describe the world. And, it’s insulting, because non-disabled people don’t understand just how dehumanizing their language towards marginalized groups (in this case, the disability community) is or can be. 

In this blog post, we’ll be exploring basic comparisons between Person First Language and Identity First language, we’ll give background and context for both of them. Most crucially, we’ll end with some tips on how to navigate said language with respect, patience, and curiosity, when interacting with the disabled community.  

First, what do we mean when we’re discussing Person First Language and Identity First Language? 

Well, these are the two ways the disability community most often speaks about ourselves. When interacting with my peers, I’ve noticed most of us fall into one of two camps: Person First or Identity First. 

Person First language, the older, more established language of the two, allows a person not to be solely defined by his or her disability. You address the person first, their disability second.  

In practice: “She’s a person who is blind. He is a person with autism. My uncle is a person who uses a wheelchair.”  

Person first language empowers a person to identify as their full self first, the disability remaining simply an afterthought, a secondary factor, a feature.  The use of person first language came about in the 1990s, as a way of eliminating once very belittling rhetoric used to describe disabilities. The goal of person first language was not only to address such dehumanizing word choice, but also, to push disability into the background of conversation. Thus, the person’s autonomy, their actual PERSONHOOD, came first, not the blindness, the autism, or the wheelchair.  

The motive is to give the person with said disability agency over their own journey, so that they may be seen as a full person, not defined by what separates, or rather, “others,” them, in society. 

Furthermore, Person First Language is primarily taught in schools by Special Ed experts, and is used with frequency in the medical community. 

In more recent years, however, Identity First language emerged 

Rather than viewing disability as something separate from the individual, identity first language incorporates disability into the person’s life totally, as a defining characteristic.  

Examples of identity first language are: “My best friend is autistic. My uncle is a wheelchair user.” 

Instead of the ever popular “Person first, disability second,” chorus, identity first language aims for a more wholistic, streamlined approach. It incorporates the disability into the description of the individual first, right off the bat. Not as a secondary item, but a clarifying one.  

Key factors that separate person first language from identity first language goes beyond just our word choice or our use in everyday life. It speaks (yes, pun intended here) to giving people agency over their selfhood. This may seem odd to those who’ve never had to consider their language before (some might even call that privilege) but I’m here to tell you that it matters. 

I say this to drive home my last, most important, most passionate point. It’s not just the language you use. It is how you use it. 

With that, here are the three most important things to keep in mind when you (specifically as a non-disabled person) use language about disability: 

  1. Let the disabled person lead & honor their preferences: We’ll start at the very beginning, because starting with the disabled person’s preference is [indeed] a very good place to start. J This should be self-explanatory, but: If you hear your peer/friend/colleague/classmate/neighbor say in conversation, “I’m a person with a disability.” Or, “I tend to use person first-language”, then voila! There you have it. If they say, “I’m disabled.” Or, “I actually use identity first language, not person first,” then you again have your answer. Just listen in conversation. It’s not that hard, I swear.  
  2. Acknowledge the person as their own individual, same as you would a non-disabled peer: If you truly don’t know an individual well enough, are not close to them, or are in a situation where bringing up their disability may be inappropriate (totally valid!), you could just ask them what their name is. I know it sounds groundbreaking to some, but that’s what you do with non-disabled people, right?  
  3. Remain respectfully curious and direct: Having several conversations within the disability community over the years, as well as with the non-disabled folks in my life, I can personally attest that while we do appreciate our preferences being honored, (because, ahem, they should be) we appreciate curiosity over mere assumptions even more. If the situation arises, there’s nothing wrong with directly asking, “Do you prefer person first or identity first language?” Some of us may have a strong preference, some of us may not feel strongly either way. But most of us do appreciate thoughtfulness and clarity.
  4. Don’t tone police a disabled person’s language preference, in person, online or on social media: This is a personal pet peeve of mine that I just really need to put on the internet, so thank you to my colleagues for allowing this post. We’ll say it loud for the people in the back:  IF YOU ARE ABLE-BODIED IT IS REALLY, REALLY not your place to tell me “Person first language should be used here!”, or, “Why don’t you say _____ word, instead?” Please just don’t. Don’t be that Karen – I mean that person. I don’t need that negativity in my life. Kindly don’t comment. Do not pass go. Do not collect 200 dollars. In all seriousness, please understand that we use the expression “Nothing About Us,” for good reason, and that your place as an ally is to simply respect us, and that includes how we identify.  

People with disabilities (or disabled people, as you’ve now learned 😉) should be the voices at the forefront of conversations surrounding inclusive language. It is our lives and experiences we are speaking to, after all!  

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